Game Designers In Detail is a three-question interview series between a current NYU Game Center MFA student and a PRACTICE speaker.


Maria Saint Martin: After your talk at GDC in 2012, you became well known for extensive playtesting. In your experience, there have probably been times when a playtest led you to realize that a feature you loved wasn’t working well yet. How far do you continue pursuing your vision? And how can you tell it’s time to cut one of your “babies?”

Drew Murray: I think it’s a matter of balancing how closely your feature is to your vision for it and the playtest feedback you’re getting, as well as knowing why you’re playtesting. Are you trying to make something better or are you trying to decide whether to cut something? If you have something that approximates your vision for a feature and people think it stinks, you’re probably in trouble. But if you’re in the ugly-and-rough prototype phase, maybe you’re just looking for feedback related to usability.

For me, it ends up being intuition and a judgment call – how good can I imagine something being, how good do I actually think we can get it in the time we have to work on it, how central an idea it is to the game we’re working on, and what’s the feedback?

MM: Recently, it seems that you have moved away from creating a strictly linear story for the player. Do you feel that it is more important that the narrative revolves around the game mechanics or that the game mechanics are developed to support the narrative? Why?

DM: I think the most important thing is just that the narrative and game mechanics match up to one another, however you arrive there. I tend to be very mechanically inclined, so as soon as an idea comes up, I’m thinking, “what does that mean to the gameplay?” So my ideas usually originate based on mechanics or thinking of a simple situation or fiction and thinking about how that could be manifested via game mechanics. But different people think in different ways. I think the more common way to think about games is to start with the narrative, since we’re surrounded by narrative – books, movies, the news, our friends’ stories – and that can provide great inspiration for creating something really fresh. I think the danger is getting tied to a complicated narrative too early that’s going to create too many restrictions on mechanics.

MM: How do you find what’s going to be cool and unique about your project? Does it evolve naturally through iteration or do you pursue and iterate over a certain idea you had since the beginning.

DM: It’s almost always found through iteration. We tend to pick a vague idea, make a good first-guess, head in that direction, and turn, shift, and adjust our way towards fun. I think getting something – anything – playable is essential to really judging anything. You can sit in a room and argue endlessly about whether or not a particular idea is good, but those arguments tend to be settled very quickly if you have something playable in front of you.

MM: What would you say is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a leader about enabling and/or encouraging your team to contribute to the vision of the game?

DM: Quit trying to control everything and act more like a curator of ideas. I think the job as a creative / game director is to define the “box” that the game should exist within – what’s the theme, what are the core mechanics – but then let the team invest in their ideas within that box. Step in and course-correct if something doesn’t feel quite right or if ideas are starting to get outside of the box, but the more freedom and empowerment that you can give a team, the better the results you’re going to get.